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You thought it was impossible to travel South Korea on a budget, right? Yes, indeed this is a relatively expensive country, specially for low-budget travellers – just like us. The food and transport prices for instance are equal or higher to some European countries, however, when it comes to accommodation, things get ugly… in here, a 10 bed shared room in a hostel does not go for less than US$18/20 per person. That’s right, exactly as you read it.
We though we were going bankruptcy while traveling South Korea, but then we found something called “Jjimjilbang”, the traditional Korean bath houses, where you can enjoy yourself and even sleep for under U$ 10/night!
And since you are at the Korean Peninsula, check it out the Ultimate Guide for North Korea
South Korea on a budget: What are the Jjimjilbangs
The jjimjilbang are the Korean public bath houses (very popular with the locals by the way). You pay between 8.000 and 10.000 Won (7 to 9 US dollars) to use the facilities of a steam house, but can also spend the night there! This is a great alternative for cheap accommodation and is actually used very often by Koreans themselves. The jjimjilbangs were the only reason we managed to travel South Korea on a budget. Honestly.
In there, you find baths with different temperatures, saunas, steam rooms, massage chairs, place for skin exfoliation and many showers (as you have to go fully naked, men and women are separated so everyone can feel at home – but we will get into that soon, just bear with us for a minute).
As part of the complex, there is also a common area with a restaurant, television, game room, library and more saunas. It is in this big room where people sleep. Each person takes a small mat and a different (and quite weird) type of pillow and settle however and wherever.
Do not expect anything explained in English (or anyone speaking English as a matter of fact) as the jjimjilbangs are frequented by Koreans and there are almost no travellers in there (actually, we had not seen any at all).
South Korea on a budget: our experience sleeping in the Jjimjilbangs
During our ten days travelling in South Korea, we slept in 4 different jjimjilbangs (in Seoul we stayed in a friend’s house) All were very cool and clean. People are nice and we did not feel any danger on leaving our backpacks either at the reception or just alone in the common area.
We only had one uncomfortable situation in a Jjimjjilbang, in the city of Pohang. Fernanda was in one of the baths when one woman called her up. She went up to her and the woman asked Fe to lay down in a massage bed and began exfoliating completely Fe’ skin (what Fernanda did not contest, actually felt great, feeling very grateful for the local hospitality). However, after finishing it, the woman comes with the bill: almost 20 dollars! We refused to pay because we did not know that was a service. Then, that women lied saying that Fernanda was the one who had called her up. It was a big fuss. Even the police went down there but it was all sorted out in the end (the police officer told the woman off and ended up paying out of his own pocket for the exfoliation – we tried to stop him from paying, but he insisted). In anyways, you better be careful: even though the place is not tourist at all, there will always be people who sees foreigners as a mean of getting a few extra bucks easily.
How do the Jjimjibang work?
The Jjimjilbangs are relatively full every day, all day long. It is all very simple. You arrive, you pay, you take your key, uniform and towel, you take off your shoes and put into a locker at the reception and head to your respective floor in the building. Again, men and women separated.
At your floor, there are more lockers. You can only go to the area with the baths and steam rooms fully naked, obviously. People look down on you if you try to walk in this area wearing something. According to the tradition, as the bath houses are public, it is important to show you are not hiding any kind of infection or sickness.
Before entering the water, take a good shower and scrub your whole body off (at least for the women as it seems that in the men’s area this routine is not rigorous followed). In addition, whoever has long hair will have to tidy up. Well, afterwards is just relax and enjoy. They provide bar soap, toothpaste and many other products, though you can take yours too, just in case.
After relaxing, it’s time to sleep now
After enjoying yourself on the different baths and saunas, it’s time to head to the common area, where people spend the night. That’s usually a large room with a restaurant, a TV and some massage chair and you just have to find a free spot, put your mat on the floor and sleep.
The only drawback is the snoring, surely… As there isn’t a soft mattress, everyone sleeps on the floor and with belly up, so you can picture, can’t you? Hopefully, you will not be awakened by other people’s snore.
How to find a jjimjilbang in South Korea?
Jjimjilbangs are in pretty much every main Korean city. The problem is that there is hardly any information on the internet or anywhere else in English, so finding them can be quite complicated.
If you get caught in this situation, ask where to find one at some of the Tourist Information Centers spread everywhere in the cities. Or ask any other people and/or taxi drivers. As we explained, the bath houses are really traditional and almost everybody knows where to find them. Just ask for a “jjimjilbang” or the “steam house” and someone will surely help you.
We hope you find it and that you enjoy it as much as we did it! At the end, these are not only a way of traveling South Korea on a budget, but also to get in touch with an interesting local tradition that will surely become one of the coolest memories from your trip.
*Post originally written in December 2015 and updated in March 2018.